“What Lexington Needs” is a weekly reader forum. Email 800 word submissions to [email protected]. This submission will appear on page 14 in this week’s print edition.
by Heather Watson (@HeatherCW)
I desperately want to move back to Lexington. I left Lexington in 2004, chasing the siren call of a salary that was nearly triple what I was then making. And I’ve regretted it every day since. It isn’t just me, though. I hear similar statements all the time from my closest friends, colleagues and sorority sisters. Business people. Writers. Scientific researchers. Top-firm lawyers. Progressive ministers. Talented people at the top of their fields and at the height of their professional lives. Tons of young professional former Lexingtonians are shouting, “What Lexington Needs is Me!”
Successful people who love Lexington and who want to move home to practice their chosen trades will provide their own economic reward in terms of taxes, local spending and well-performed jobs. In order to make this happen, Lexington needs a long-term structured framework for systemic change which will help accommodate an influx of young professionals. This paradigm shift will require a coordinated by elected officials, business leaders, and the academic sector in order to select and implement a new signature industry for Lexington.
In order to bring young professionals home, Lexington must create new jobs. This sounds like a laughably simple concept, but is actually a mission statement for systemic change. When state and local government work together with existing companies within the Bluegrass and potential new industries in order to create a far-reaching blueprint for change, exciting new jobs for Lexington’s displaced business class are nearly guaranteed. In order to form this blueprint, we need to look at the successes of other states.
For example, a recent article in The Economist examined the transformation of North Carolina’s manufacturing industry from textiles and furniture to biotech. The state’s ten-year economic investment of $1.2 billion dollars has led to an aggregate economic impact of nearly $46 million; 54,000 North Carolina residents are currently employed in roughly 500 biotechnology companies. Private-sector jobs in North Carolina’s burgeoning biotech industry are the direct result of collaboration between the state’s elected officials, private industry, and the universities within the famed Research Triangle: The Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center at NC State University, a Raleigh research facility was built using funds from the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) between the major tobacco manufacturers and the states. Kentucky receives these same funds every year: Attorney General Jack Conway announced that the Commonwealth received this year’s settlement payment of $116.9 million on April 20; $3.45 billion will be awarded to Kentucky over a twenty-five year period that began in 1998. Conway’s statement failed to include specific plans for the funding, noting only that this settlement “provides for many invaluable programs — from agriculture to education.”
Lexington’s own research boom is well within our reach. The University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy is consistently ranked among the top in the nation. Exciting collaborative research is being conducted across various disciplines among UK’s Medical and Scientific Colleges. Scientific researchers at Alltech’s Nicholasville campus are working to revolutionize animal feed, brew better beer, and provide all sorts of real-life biotechnology improvements. International microelectronics manufacturer Cypress Semiconductor conducts high-level Computer-Aided Design from the first floor of the former Festival Market. Directed state funding, such as the MSA settlement money, could expand the scope of the brilliant work conducted at all of these facilities, by partnering independent scientific research with the university’s research. Cypress Semiconductor has taken the lead in such partnering by providing invaluable Co-op experiences for UK’s Engineering students by allowing them to work in real-life computer engineering settings for credit in upper-level courses. Alltech has already established itself as a partner with the city and the equine industry through its sponsorship of the World Equestrian Games. Extended partnering between local companies like Alltech and Cypress, elected officials, and University researchers could very easily transform Lexington by helping create new research facilities, new auxiliary businesses, and ultimately, new jobs.
Now, I know that it sounds very idyllic to just say “build it and they will come.” But, just think of the snowball effect that Central Kentucky’s economy enjoyed following the building of the Georgetown Toyota plant. Beyond the sheer number of jobs that the plant itself provided, suddenly several new businesses emerged to provide parts; each of these businesses needed employees, legal counsel, health insurance, etc. The new workers needed homes, which resulted in a surge in the local real estate market. A local law firm even implemented a Japanese-language corporate law practice — something entirely new to the central Kentucky market. And all those great new sushi restaurants started to spring up. Toyota’s synergy led to the implementation of previously unimaginable businesses.
Just think of the exciting new opportunities — economic and cultural, that our next great industry could provide. If, for example, the Commonwealth wins the bidding war for the battery plant that has been proposed for Elizabethtown, the entire state will benefit. Governor Beshear has already announced that UK, U of L and the Argonne National Laboratory will partner to create a battery manufacturing research and development center in Lexington. The very nature of this proposal — an R&D facility for hybrid car batteries — ensures an environmentally-focused and progressive environment as well as fascinating research opportunities for Lexington’s new business class.
Changing Lexington’s industrial path will neither be quick nor easy. One or two new industries need to be selected in a thoughtful, multi-disciplinary way. This will involve collaboration between the Urban County Council, the Mayor, Governor Beshear, President Todd, and leaders of local corporations. This needs to involve voters, alumni, and Lexington residents making their voices heard through their votes, their continued dialogue with the power structure, and through their campaign and alumni contributions. We need collaboration, innovation, and communication. We will also need legislative approval from throughout the Commonwealth. In order to build a signature Lexington industry, our legislators will need to make a directed effort to funnel more funds into Lexington until the industry takes hold, rather than taking pieces willy-nilly back to the 120 counties. Following North Carolina’s lead, Kentucky legislators could even work to establish the state’s own research triangle — Lexington/Louisville/Northern Kentucky —which would ensure more jobs and more revenue for each city and surrounding counties. This type of long-term industrial vision will ultimately result in a wealthier state with more jobs.
While I would never suggest that any of Lexington’s signature hospitality and charm –the very reasons we want to come home -—will be eroded with the influx of young professionals, Lexington will certainly evolve as the new business class comes home, bringing new tastes and interests with them.
Just an hour away, Louisville has quietly built up a culinary scene that is just as exciting as that in Chicago; Frankfort Avenue and Bardstown Road present a variety of moderate-to-fine-dining options in every conceivable style of cuisine. The very tools that make these restaurants possible are available to enterprising Lexingtonians: the Sullivan University culinary program and the Kentucky Proud program. Louisville’s Sullivan program—-including its signature restaurant Winston’s —-has been widely regarded as the impetus for that city’s culinary explosion. Lexington’s Sullivan-trained chefs will be in higher demand as more restaurants emerge. (Ace Food Writer Chef Dave Overton is a graduate.)
Similarly, the Kentucky Proud program —- by which the Kentucky Department of Agriculture encourages local restaurants that make use of locally grown ingredients will help new Lexington restaurants prosper. Professionals, who have either adopted the locavore philosophy or the Alice Waters trend of locally grown ingredients, will flock to restaurants which prominently feature Kentucky food. Lexington’s dining industry will flourish along with the new business class.
The new professional class may establish new real estate hotspots. They will most certainly demand a non-college nightlife, a process that is gaining traction with the development of the Distillery District and the reopening of Buster’s as a live music venue. For those of us who are past the “going out” age, there may be a renewed focus on theatre or art or philanthropy. Again, if a few creative Lexingtonians — the same folks who already come together for Beaux Arts and SummerFest at the Arboretum — picked a direction and ran with it, the entertainment niche would expand quickly.
Lexington has great starts on so many of these ideas. Lexington also needs to bring good people home. And find a way to keep them here.